It’s spring of senior year and your daughter has just received the best news of her life. “Congratulations! We are pleased to inform you that…” You see the biggest smile on her face, followed by tears of joy as she learns she has just been admitted to the school of her dreams. As you look at page two of her letter you feel like crying too, but for completely different reasons. The financial aid award isn’t close to what you will need to make her dream school affordable.
The one remedy still open to you is the Letter of Appeal. You don’t have much time because May 1 is National College Decision Day, the last day you can deposit at the school your child will attend. So what steps should you take to appeal a financial aid award? How do you most persuasively request a review? What should you write in the appeal letter that will win your case?
How to Appeal a Financial Aid Award
Where to Begin
1. First, compare the financial aid offers from all her colleges. It is crucial that you understand what your net cost will be at the schools your child most wants to attend. The net cost is the total annual cost after subtracting grants and scholarships.
Do not subtract loans or student employment, since these aren’t gift aid. Be sure you understand what the total cost of attendance (COA) is at each school—tuition, fees, room, board, books, personal expenses, and transportation to and from campus. Then do the simple arithmetic to learn how much each school will actually cost:
2. Next, if you decide that you want to go ahead with an appeal at one or more schools, call the financial aid offices and ask what their process is. Some will simply send you a form to complete, others will ask you to send them a detailed request in writing. If they allow a letter, I recommend you send it as a pdf attachment to an email addressed to the financial aid office of each college.
Strongest Reasons to Appeal a Financial Aid Award
Simply wanting more money, even needing more money, is not going to win your appeal. So what are the most convincing circumstances that could lead to a favorable adjustment to the award?
1. Loss of job/income. The most powerful reason to appeal is that there has been a loss of job or other source of income since the FAFSA and CSS Profile were submitted. If this loss of income was due to a circumstance beyond the family’s control, it will carry considerable weight in the appeal process. What will be expected from you is the date of job loss, the reason for the job loss, the amount your earnings have been reduced, an explanation of when employment will be resumed if known, and what the new expectation of earnings will be. It is best to attach additional documentation corroborating these circumstances.
2. Increase in non-discretionary expenses. Family spending can skyrocket as a result of serious injury or illness, or an elderly family member needing to move in to your home, or natural disasters like fires, floods, or earthquakes where there is significant damage to home or property. If any of these events have occurred, they should be documented in the letter of appeal, using actual dollar amounts.
3. Better offer from another school. If another similar school has offered a more generous aid package, you should bring this to the attention of the financial aid office. The competing institution should be similar to the one at which you are appealing (e.g., NYU and Boston University, Creighton and Loyola Maryland, Wesleyan and Vassar).
Be prepared to share a copy of the competition’s award letter. Once your child has been admitted, she has more leverage than you might think. The institution wants her to enroll because its yield—the percentage of admitted students who actually enroll—is an extremely important indicator of an institution’s power in the marketplace.
Writing the Letter
Here are some important guidelines to follow as you write your letter:
• It is perfectly acceptable for parents, rather than the student, to communicate directly with the financial aid office. Not the case with college applications and essays, but definitely the case with financial aid negotiations.
• Clearly identify the applicant by name, high school, whether a first-year applicant or transfer, and the application round (e.g. early decision, early action, regular decision). Clearly identify yourself as well.
• Show appreciation for your child’s admission into the institution and the financial award they have offered to this point.
• Title your letter as “Letter of Appeal.” Make it clear in the first brief paragraph that you would like them to review the offer of financial aid in light of the information you are about to document in this letter.
• Your arguments should be concise. The more your case can be explained by numbers, dates, and events beyond your control, the more persuasive it will be.
• Be clear about what you can afford to pay. If $6,500 more in institutional grants will make your child’s first choice affordable, and if that is the difference in net price between the two competing institutions, state this clearly. If they know how much more they need to sweeten the pot to ensure your child’s enrollment, tell them.
• In your closing paragraph, be sure to thank them for the time they are putting in on your behalf. Explain that because of family finances the cost of college is a significant factor in the final decision of where she can attend. Express clearly that they are your child’s first choice (if this is true), and that you hope they can make it possible for her to enroll.
Some Final Tips
It is always easier to say no to someone in writing than over the phone, and easier over the phone than in person. If you can visit the financial aid office, be sure to mention in your cover email that you would like to arrange a meeting as soon as possible after they have had a chance to review your appeal. Otherwise, let them know you will be following up in a few days by phone.
Remember, admitted applicants have leverage, and your persuasive arguments have a good chance of initiating a recalculation of your need and can result in your child’s financial aid award being increased. Know going into the negotiation what you will require to make your child’s enrollment possible, and be prepared to say no if they don’t meet it, and yes if they do!
Jeff Levy, CEP, is an educational consultant based in Santa Monica, California. He works with students locally, regionally, and internationally on their college search and application process, and with parents on college affordability and financial aid. He can be reached through his website here.